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“Only the most broken people can be great leaders,” Namor (Tenoch Huerta) intones in the latest trailer for Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. While the first trailer for Ryan Coogler’s highly-anticipated sequel conveyed a message of grief as the central characters mourned the death of King T’Challa, reflecting audiences’ continued grief over the loss of Chadwick Boseman, the latest trailer puts a greater focus on the film’s narrative. It even hints at the inclusion of a key Marvel villain that hasn’t been announced.
Although there is still a somber tone, one that I suspect will permeate the film as a means to permit collective grieving over Boseman, this trailer is a confirmation that the death of T’Challa will not make the world smaller. Rather, Wakanda Forever looks to offer a larger tapestry to re-frame T’Challa’s legacy and consider how loss shapes a nation. Arguably, the latest trailer doesn’t evoke a superhero movie at all, at least not the ones we’re used to, but rather an epic unfolding through tragedy, faith, and the determination to lay claim to the future.
Namor is not the typical comic-book movie antagonist, and the new footage in the trailer goes to lengths to prove that point, providing glimpses of Namor’s Mayan culture, regality, and place among his people that obviously makes him a foil to T’Challa, just as human and just as driven by duty to his people and his god. With T’Challa gone, Namor is a King without peer ,which makes his introduction all the more interesting. Of course, it’s natural to lament the fact that we won’t see T’Challa and Namor square off in this movie, Namor’s inclusion speaks to Coogler’s interest in examining the idea of the throne as a people rather than a person.
The poster for the film seems to highlight this as well, with the figure of the Black Panther looming over Shuri (Letitia Wright), Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), Ramonda (Angela Bassett), and M’Baku suggesting figuratively, and perhaps literally, despite the apparent female Black Panther show in the trailer, that all of them are rulers of Wakanda and perhaps Black Panther as well. Similarly, Namor, wearing the headdress of Kukulkan is backed by Namora (Mabel Cadena) and Attuma (Alex Livinalli), suggesting that whatever move Namor makes as ruler is not one he makes alone. And if the comics are any indication, Namora and Attuma may be the figurative angel and devil on his shoulder.
Although Namor is one of Marvel’s very first characters, debuting in Marvel Comics No. 1 (1939), and has been villain, hero, and anti-hero, his relationship to Wakanda and Black Panther is a relatively recent one that came to prominence during Christopher Priest’s run on Black Panther which ran from 1998 to 2003. Since then, other writers, like Brian Michael Bendis, Jonathan Hickman and Jason Aaron have fostered the animosity between the two kings and their kingdoms, with Namor drowning most of Wakanda during Avengers vs. X-Men, leading T’Challa to take up the mantle of King of the Dead, while Shuri rules over the remaining population of Wakanda as Queen and Black Panther. Though the two would make amends during Secret Wars, recent conflicts in Jason Aaron’s Avengers have put the two at odds again.
Elements of that conflict, including a deluge of water sweeping through Wakanda, are evident in the latest trailer. Despite the threat of war, and M’Baku’s (Winston Duke) warning that killing Namor would be akin to killing his people’s god, Huerta has made clear that Namor is not the villain of Wakanda Forever. The conflict seems to be driven by the question of what a nation becomes without its king. Do they become better, or worse? That question pushes the narrative of Wakanda Forever beyond mere superheroics and into the territory that great fantasy and sci-fi epics, like The Lord of the Rings and Dune, have explored. The weight of leadership by flawed or “broken” individuals is more than something solvable by mantras of power and responsibility.
T’Challa and Namor straddle the line of king and superhero, and king and anti-hero, respectively. But there also exists a third point of comparison. In the same Black Panther run by Priest that introduced the conflict between T’Challa and Namor, a third monarch waged war against the two kingdoms: Doctor Doom. As king and villain, Doom is yet another look at what the throne means, and in this instance when it is truly a symbol of self rather than a nation. Yet, Doom’s Latveria, in the comics, is a peaceful nation, one in which its residents have little to worry about and aren’t even forced to fight the wars of their ruler. No one is as broken as Doom, yet by Namor’s estimation, does that make him a great leader? While purely speculative, Huerta’s comments about not being the villain and the themes of Wakanda Forever illuminated by the recent trailer suggest that Doom may play a role in this epic clash of nations.
It seems as though Coogler is giving us a chance to mourn Boseman, T’Challa, and the very concept of a noble monarchy by pitting Wakanda against Tolocan, and laying bare what it is we value in a nation and its rulers. By deconstructing the iconography and invincibility of the monarchy, Coogler is arguably paving the way for a reconstruction of mythology that speaks to the essence of these character’s abilities to inspire and explore larger truths about what we value.
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